Cooroon - the Spinster Palace on Highgate Hill


The house "Cooroon", built in 1927, sits high on the western ridge of Highgate Hill, with views stretching from Tambourine Mountain to Mount Coot-tha and the St Lucia reach of Brisbane river below. In many ways it's a typical design of its time, although it was built as an unusually spacious two-floor residence and incorporates some peculiar materials. The name is onomatopoeic and hints to the pigeons that used to perch on the roof, but also to the nickname of one of the two spinster sisters from the notable Waugh Family that built the house and lived in it for nearly forty years.

In this post we will take a brief look at the history of the Highgate Hill suburb, the colorful colonial owners of the land, the sequence of suburban subdivision and development, the house itself and the Wagh family. Again I have called on the generous help of my blogging companion Elizabeth from the Walk Among the Homes blog, to capture Cooroon as we peek inside.

Highgate Hill in Colonial Days

At the time of European settlement Highgate Hill was covered in a forest of gums, ironbark and native pines, with rocky outcrops and seasonal creeks meandering down to the swampy riverside jungles of South Brisbane. The hill was called "Bennung-urrung", the name for the resident frilled dragon, by the people of the Jaggara tribe.

The area was raided for timber to supply the emerging riverside settlements and following surveys in 1855 and 1857 it was quickly divided into portions and sold to private owners. By the late 1860's a  few residences were scattered across the hill, mainly occupied by professionals and public servants as public transport for the industrial classes was still many years away. Travel to the city was by a dirt track that was later to become Gladstone Road.

First landowners of Highgate Hill; Nehamiah Bartley (left portion, granted 1860)
and Thomas Blacket Stephens (right portion, granted 1861). Click to enlarge.

In 1892 the renowned colonial business man Nehemiah Bartley (1830-1894) wrote:

"Inside the city boundary, the greatest elevation is 300 feet, at "Highgate Hill", and, 
nowhere within the municipal boundaries of London, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide 
or Hobart, is there so high a one as this, which fact gives a fair idea of the hill and dale
in the capital of Queesland"

Nehemiah was very familiar with the location as he had bought a sizable portion of land on the western slopes in 1860. Along with his many business and political interests he can be described as a collector of hilltops, and his collection included lands on Ascot Hill (still called "Bartley's Hill), Eildon Hill, Hamilton Hill, Spring Hill and others. He built a peculiar house on Hamilton Hill which came to be known as "Bartley's Folly" but had to abandon it due to harassment by "snakes, centipedes and blacks". The bank panic of 1866 saw the end of his property fortunes and he later became one of early Brisbane's originals, often seen riding down Queen St on an old mare wearing a pith helmet. But Nehemiah is also immortalized as an important chronicler of Queensland's early history, through his books Opals and Agates and Australian Pioneers and Reminiscences.

Nehemiah Bartley (left) and Thomas Blacket Stephens (right), original
owners of the Cooroon land

The second portion of land in the Cooroon neighborhood was  purchased by Thomas Blacket Stephens (1819-1877) -  yet another entrepreneur and politician, and from 1862 also Brisbane's second mayor. Stephens was a member of the primitive baptist congregation of South Brisbane and his moral and political agenda prompted him to buy the Brisbane Courier, which he converted to a large-format, daily paper. Legend has it that he caused a sensation on Highgate Hill when he claimed to have found traces of gold on his land and started digging a shaft near the current intersection of Gladstone Road and Gloucester St, which he abandoned at a depth of 50 ft without having struck the imagined reef. In time he went on to occupy a range of prominent positions including Colonial Treasurer, Postmaster General and Member of Parliament for South Brisbane. By all accounts he was an outstanding citizen of his time.

The origin of the name Highgate Hill eludes us but we find it for the first time in the Brisbane Courier in 1864, in a land sale advertisement for the "Highgate Hill Estate" which comprised a large area of land along the western slopes between Dornoch Terrace and the River. One source mentions the Scottish immigrant George Wilson and his family, who arrived in Brisbane in 1864 and settled on top of the hill, as the originators, but this seems unlikely as the name was published that same year.

Another pioneering homesteader and possibly the first resident of the hill was John Henry Trimble Senior, who immigrated with his young family from Southampton in 1864 and took up employment as 'landing waiter", or dockside customs officer, with the Queensland customs department. From 1867 we have a birth notice with his address listed as Trimble St, which is now Chermside Street. John stayed with his modest profession and house for the rest of his life but his two sons came to play a key role in the future development of the neighborhood, as we shall see.

Speculation and Subdivision, 1889 -1926

By 1889 the bulk of Bartley's and Stephen's former lands on the southern slopes had been incorporated in to the Hazelwood Estate, covering the area between the river, Dauphin Road, Dornoch Terrace and Gladstone Road. The name was taken from the Hazelwood homestead which was located on the crest of the hill by the nascent Gladstone Road, but which had been demolished in 1888 to make room for the new service water reservoir. Up to that point, water had been carried by the locals from a spring on Boundary street near the current Boundary Hotel. The reservoir boosted the supply to South Brisbane and became an enabler for further residential development on the hill.

Hazelwood Estate in 1891. Click to enlarge 

Sale of the Hazelwood started 1889 and continued throughout the 1890's. The inaugural auction was managed by the Trimble Brothers and was a heavily promoted affair, with large Brisbane Courier advertisements stating (emphasis retained):

"The most important land sale in the city.. on top of the HIGHGATE HILL which is also 
known as the WICKHAM TERRACE OF SOUTH BRISBANE, commanding 
extensive scenery embracing MORETON ISLAND, the great DIVIDING RANGE, 
CUNNINGHAM'S GAP, Little Liverpool Range, Glass House Mountains, Taylor's Range 
and the SERPENTINE WINDINGS OF THE BRISBANE RIVER forming ONE GRAND 
PANORAMA WHICH CANNOT BE SURPASSED"

The views from the top of the hill are indeed spectacular, and would have been even more so before the grazed crest and slopes were dressed in mature suburban gardens and trees. Also adding to the attraction of the new suburb was the horse-drawn omnibus service which by the 1880's departed to and from the city every ten minutes.

The Trimble Brother consisted of Alexander (1861-1932) and John Henry Junior (1865-1943), both sons of the settler John Henry Trimble. The boys were in their tender teens and early twenties when they ventured into business as fancy goods importers, operating from an office located in the long demolished Temple Buildings on the corner of Queen and George Streets. Their catalogue included ornamental items, gold and silver but increasingly turned to tobacco and in particular a large assortment of Havana cigars. From 1887 the advertisements changed tone and came to include commission agencies for property, land and mining.
Trimble Brothers advertisements in 1884 (left), 1887 (top right) and
1888 (bottom right). Click to enlarge.

These were the years of the great 19th century land and mining boom and it captured the enterprising siblings. In the late 1880's they went all-in, advertising in the Brisbane Courier for £100,000 to lend on mortgages of city and suburban properties. They also invested their own capital in land, including four adjacent lots on Highgate Hill, two of which now comprise the Cooroon property.

Trimble land holdings on Highgate Hill, 1891. The two lots on the right
now comprise the Cooroon plot of land. Click to enlarge.

The auction in 1889 coincided with the peak of the property bubble and land prices took a dive as the country descended into the 1890's depression. The Trimble brothers shared the fate of many other speculators and were declared insolvent in 1893. We don't know the full extent of their land holdings but their triple exposure to real estate as auctioneers, property owners and financiers must have devastated any capital accumulated during the boom years.

The Brothers retained the four lots on the hill until 1904 when they were sold for the sum of £175 to John Bell (1830-1911), a respected Scottish immigrant and long-standing Brisbane merchant who lived with his family in the nearby Beaconsfield Street. John died in 1911 and the land passed to his wife Margaret who held it until 1926.

The merchant John Bell

There are no indications that the Cooroon land was ever the site of a house prior to 1926. A cattle brand from the 1880s suggests that the Trimble brothers used their undeveloped land assets for pasture, which was often the case.

Cooroon and the Waugh Family, 1926-1963

John Neill Waugh (1818-1900) received his medical doctor's degree from the University of St Andrews in 1856 and that same year a license from the Apothecaries Society. After a few year's practice in London he was employed as a ship's surgeon with the East India Company which took him to India, Africa and finally Australia before settling down in Brisbane in 1858. He traveled back to England in to marry his cousin Margaret Pasfield in 1863, and returned to Brisbane with his bride to settle in a cottage on Herschel St on North Quay.

John Neill Waugh, photo courtesy
of Ancestry.com

The historical records yield plenty of information on John and his many business dealings, interests and civic engagements. First and foremost he continued his career as a medical doctor, practicing from his cottage on North Bank for many decades, but he was also a very active in the ever controversial field of homeopathy. His interest in natural sciences led him to the Queensland Philosophical Society where a select group of intellectuals discussed "scientific subjects, with special reference to the natural history, climate, soil and agriculture of the colony of Queensland." John delivered lectures on spectroscopy and came to serve as councilor, curator and chairman of the organisation which laid the foundations for the Queensland Museum.

In 1868 the first large-scale sugar mill and plantation in Queensland, named Pearlwell, was established at the Tennyson side of the Oxley Creek and Brisbane River junction. The land was owned by John and he retained a majority stake in the company. Within a few years the cutting-edge, steam-powered mill produced a record one hundred tons of sugar in a single growing season and it became a model for centralised and mechanised sugar manufacturing. But John's interest in agricultural science went well beyond sugar and he remained heavily involved with the Queensland Acclimatisation Society throughout his life, and its efforts to expand the range of produce for Queensland's rural industries. In addition to all of the above he was a member of several masonic lodges, supporter of local charities and family father.

The couple had ten children but only three survived to adulthood and one, their son George Waugh, went on to raise a family. The two daughters Fanny Isabella "Dovie" and Naomi "Nono" remained in the family home on North Quay after the deaths of their father in 1900 and mother in 1905, and in 1926 they bought the plot of land on top of Highgate Hill. In 1928 they were listed in the newly built house Cooroon. Naomi is remembered by the family as a strong personality and tireless worker for charities, in particular the Queensland Braille Writer's Association where she transcribed many books and held positions as librarian and honorary secretary for over thirty years. Fanny Isabella suffered from health problems and lived a more retired life on the hill, but nevertheless featured regularly in the social columns in her sister's company.

The brother, George Waugh, became a solicitor and married Florence Ada Deuchar of the prominent pastoralist family from Glengallan house at Warwick. But Florence died only a few years later and George eventually joined his sisters at Cooroon. The last of the siblings passed away in 1960 and the house left the Waugh family in 1963.

A Look at Cooroon

Cooroon is a fairly typical suburban house design of the late 1920s, featuring a bungalow roof with projecting gables and a street-facing veranda which was later enclosed. A pattern from the 1927 War Services Commission catalogue offers a close match in both time and style - but, Cooroon is twice the size and was built as a two-level home with five bedrooms.

Street-facing veranda and frontispiece, which in the
standard one-level design would have adorned the entry staircase

Internally, one of the most striking features is the extent of dark stained pine deployed in the fretwork arch and half-height wall paneling of the dining and drawing rooms, and in doors, window frames and ceiling details throughout the house. The staircase makes extensive use of the timber on the stairs and walls. The well-preserved pine is untouched since the time of construction and has a wonderful rich-brown patina. Light plaster ceilings give a clean finish against the pine details.

Living Room

And here's another curiosity - all floors throughout the upper and lower level are made of Radiata or some other soft, non-native pine. I've found no records of exotic pine plantations in Australia that were harvested by the 1920s but it is possible that the timber was imported for the purpose or re-used from some other application. After nearly 90 years, the owners can still smell the resin in the wood whenever the house has been locked up for a while.

Internal views, including (from left) the built-in veranda, staircase,
pine flooring and ceiling details

A substantial, modern living area has been added to the back of the house but the original building is intact. The new part respects and compliments the old and vice versa - a great solution overall. More pictures of Cooroon can be found at the Walk Among the Homes blog.

Final Thoughts

House history research can be frustrating, particularly if you're congenitally curious and a bit stubborn. A narrative starting with a colonial era proto-suburb and ending with a house on a plot of land involves many interwoven strands of people, places, organisations, suburban and social histories and it is very, very easy to get sidetracked into some interesting but less relevant subplot to he main story. This was certainly the case for the Highgate Hill neighborhood and the characters involved in the history of Cooroon. Much of the research was left on the cutting board and many questions are outstanding. For example, there are some very old houses in the Trimble and Julia St neighborhood - did one of them belong to the purported first settler of the hill, John Trimble? Perhaps we can return to this suburb one day and pick up some of the loose strands.

My thanks to the current owners of Cooroon and to the Waugh family for sharing their house and family stories. As always we hope that this house is preserved as a family home, destined to raise many more generations of Brisbane vintage housing enthusiasts.




Researching house histories takes a fair bit of effort and to make the task less daunting I have omitted a detailed reference list. But as a rough guide, I have consulted the following key resources for this article:
- Personal communications with the Waugh family
- Deed of Grant and historical Title Deeds for the property, sourced from Queensland DNRM
Brief summary of the early and Aboriginal history of  the Highgate Hill etc., Ray Kerkhove, December 1985.
- History of Highgate Hill, J. K. Jarrott, 1997
- TROVE historical newspaper archives
- Genealogy.com, for family trees, census records, electoral rolls and passenger lists
- Post office directories from the 1870's through to the 1940's
- Pugh's Almanac, 1859-1927
- NSW and Queensland Government Gazettes, 1836-1900
- Aerial photography, BCC PDOnline
- Miscellaneous texts on Queensland history
- Parish and miscellaneous maps, courtesy of the Queensland State Archives
- Brisbane House Styles 1880-1940, a Guide to the Affordable House, J. G. Rechner

2 comments:

  1. Wow Magnus! You are a master detective. Our family is so grateful for all of your passion and work to discover the history of our home. Your respect for privacy and attention to detail is to be commended and admired. I hope to read many more Brisbane house histories in the future.Best wishes and thanks from the inhabitants of Cooroon.

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